THE INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS COMMITTEE'S
SUBCOMMITTEE ON WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS
BY CARLOS M. SALINAS
ADVOCACY DIRECTOR FOR LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL USA
5 AUGUST 1998
We are pleased to present our views about the current human rights situation in Colombia. This hearing is timely because the new government in Colombia needs to hear clearly that the US government is concerned about the human rights situation and it is critical because Colombia is living through a human rights nightmare. I would like to thank you Mr. Chairman for your leadership in having a hearing that actually addresses the human rights situation. We think Congress would greatly benefit from a further hearing where Colombian and other US human rights organizations could also testify.
Colombia has been living through a human rights emergency for the past decade which I had an opportunity to personally examine while spending a few weeks of extensive research in Colombia as part of an Amnesty International delegation.
We began and ended in Bogota where we met with Colombian government officials including General Serrano and members of several different peace and human rights organizations; members of displaced communities; Chilean, US, English, and Dutch diplomats; experts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and local and foreign journalists.
We also traveled to one of the more remote departments of Colombia, the Putumayo, where we traveled to six towns and met with officials such as mayors, city councilors, and other local officials; military and police commanders; members of the church and local organizations; and the local population.
The mission was a sobering reminder of the military quagmire that is Colombia and added further nuances to what I already knew to be a complex situation. Indeed, the Colombian situation can best be compared to a grisly kaleidoscope, where a multiplicity of actors shift their alliances, and what is true in one moment or in one area does not necessarily hold in another.
The incoming government has a huge challenge ahead and in this context, it is imperative that the US government ensure that its aid programs do not contribute to human rights violations.
The general situation in Colombia is dire, where to be a human rights activist is not to question if one might become an assassination target but when. Any perceived or actual critic of the current political or human rights situation is targeted: judges, lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, teachers, and students. Virtually every sector is affected by political violence.
Bearing the brunt of the violence is the civilian population, which is assailed from all sides. Paramilitary forces, often operating with the support or acquiescence of the regular security forces, currently account for two out of three political killings in Colombia, and carry out massacres of non-combatant civilians. The links between the paramilitary and regular security forces cannot be stressed enough and have been amply documented by Amnesty International. I include for the record an Amnesty International case study on such links in one area, "Hacienda Bellacruz: Land, Violence and Paramilitary Power." I would also like to refer you to our 1994 report on Colombia, Political Violence: Myth and Reality, and the 1996 Human Rights Watch report Colombia's Killer Networks.
The rural population also suffers violence directly from the regular security forces and from the armed opposition groups. State-sponsored paramilitary groups, known as CONVIVIR, have also added to the violence against and abuse of the rural population. The two most significant armed opposition groups are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC), and the National Army of Liberation, Ejército Nacional de Liberación (ELN). Both groups along with others have waged guerrilla warfare in Colombia for more than three decades and both groups engage in violations of humanitarian law, including the killing and abduction of non-combatants.
Although there has been a period of relative calm, the situation will likely deteriorate in the months ahead. Furthermore, knowledgeable and credible sources believe that a strategy to kill or otherwise silence human rights activists continues in place.
One human rights defender, Jesús María Valle Jaramillo, of the Medellín-based Antioquia Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights – "Héctor Abad Gómez," Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos de Antioquia – "Héctor Abad Gómez," was murdered on February 27 of this year, one day after a member of his group was publicly commended by Chairman Benjamin A. Gilman, during a hearing on Colombia. Despite the recognition of his organization's work in Washington, the next day he was murdered. Recently, arrests have been made in connection to Jaramillo's murder but it is still too early to tell whether or not these investigations will be fruitful. Another human rights defender assassinated, on April 18 of this year, Dr. Eduardo Umaña Mendoza; was a long-standing and very influential member of the human rights community in Colombia.
Colombian human rights activists share our belief that the human rights problem cannot wait until there is a comprehensive peace plan in place, as some have suggested. Peace negotiations, if they come, will be welcome, but they will surely be prolonged and difficult. Meanwhile hundreds of defenseless non-combatant civilians are dying. There must be immediate action to stop the wanton killings.
We cannot overstress in this 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that human rights are inalienable, non-negotiable rights. The argument that there can be no meaningful discussion about human rights protection absent a peace process not only betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the concept of human rights but is also a great disservice to those who are trying to get all belligerent parties to respect their obligations under international law.
THE SITUATION IN PUTUMAYO
Putumayo is an isolated part of Colombia along the border of Ecuador. Transportation by river is as important as by land. The broad expanse of rainforest is interrupted by many clearings of cattle grazing and where many campesinos grow coca plants in addition to basic subsistence crops.
A force of around 300 paramilitary gunmen had apparently arrived in the Puerto Asís area at the end of January 1998 and began to selectively kill community members. The paramilitaries reportedly had a 'hitlist' of 250 intended victims, whom they accused of being guerrilla auxiliaries. Among the first killed were two high school students: Johnny Delgado and Sandra Milena Hurtado, the latter for reportedly being the girlfriend of a guerrilla fighter. On February 8 paramilitary gunmen began openly patrolling the streets of Puerto Asís and killed Carlos Acosta in broad daylight, then immediately shot and killed a witness. Since then, paramilitaries have reportedly killed more than 40 residents.
In Puerto Asís we met with a wide range of people including officials such as the police commander, members of the city council, the mayor, and the local community. We also visited Santa Ana, the base of the 24th Brigade, to ask about the paramilitary attacks. Police officials and military leaders downplayed paramilitary activity, but at the same time spoke openly of widespread killings during earlier periods and of confiscation of weapon caches.
Some elected officials and other community leaders confirmed that there had been a huge wave of paramilitary violence that had not been in any way blocked by the local security forces. Many with whom we spoke were still terrified.
We also visited the Puerto Asís prison. While most inmates admitted they had been detained for picking coca leaves, they all told us they were actually imprisoned because they did not have enough money to bribe either the arresting soldiers or the prison director. This medieval version of justice was matched only by the squalid conditions: more than forty people in a jail built for twenty, unhygienic conditions including seepage of untreated waste water, men imprisoned together with women, two women in advanced states of pregnancy with no special care - one even sleeping on the damp concrete floor because of lack of space, little medical attention, and a useless drainage system that ensured flooding, soaking even the mattresses, following a heavy rain. When confronted with this, the mayor replied that this was not within his jurisdiction.
Our investigation also encompassed Orito and La Hormiga also known as Valle del Guamuez. La Hormiga is reputed to be one of the major markets for the coca trade in the region. At La Hormiga we found the population even more terrified because of the many sources of violence, including the security forces, the police, the FARC and the so-called urban militias, armed urban gangs with a flimsy ideological veneer. These militias apparently set a curfew at 10:00 p.m. after which few venture onto the streets. At midnight, the generator for the town shuts down and, as a local priest told us, "the shots begin." Indeed the night we spent in La Hormiga was interrupted at 5:30 am by several volleys of gunfire. Here, the police stay in their base and rarely venture forth. Indeed, everyone agreed that it was suicidal for a policeman to travel by himself.
We heard credible reports about security forces killings of actual or perceived FARC or militia supporters, and of killings by the FARC or the militias of members of the security forces and their actual or perceived supporters. By perceived supporters I mean not only those who are suspected of ideological sympathy but also those friendly to or romantically involved with members of one faction or another. In La Hormiga, there is no middle ground permitted and the civilian population is unprotected from the ravages of all sides.
In the end, no one was detained for the wave of killings that swept through the Puerto Asís area earlier this year. And the paramilitary chief, Carlos Castaño who incidentally has been identified in a recent DEA report as being a narcotrafficker, has declared that controlling Putumayo is one of his organization's key objectives.
As in other parts of Colombia, it is hard to conceive a paramilitary force entering a town and with total impunity unleashing a wave of terror, without at least the acquiescence of the security forces. There are military roadblocks on the road to Puerto Asís, the airport is militarized, and there is a police base in the town center.
We were heartened by the fact that US Embassy personnel were supportive of the human rights protection known as the Leahy Amendment adopted by Congress last year. This amendment, Section 570 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act for FY98, is a modest and very reasonable prohibition of US aid from known human rights criminals.
We were repeatedly reassured by Embassy staff that it was doing all it could to vigorously implement this which we welcome. We believe Congress should make more resources available to the Embassy to fully implement the terms of the March 1998 instructional cable on the implementation of the Leahy Amendment. It also appears that more resources are needed to ensure the Embassy can provide Washington in a timely way with information about its end use monitoring activities. As you know the End Use Monitoring Report produced by the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement suffers from a two-year lag.
We asked about Colombian army units who had participated in exercises, training, or operations with the US Special Operations Forces. Embassy staff emphasized that in their opinion, these deployments were consistent with both law and policy. While this may well be true, our conclusion supports the Washington Post accounts that units possibly implicated in rights violations have participated in operations with the Special Operations Forces. The Embassy declined to provide other information about Special Forces exercises. We believe that disclosure of more information about them is important for both the taxpaying public and the Congress.
We were told by apparently well-informed sources in Bogotá that the two Colombian Army units "cleared" so far to receive US aid under the terms of the Leahy Amendment are apparently the 24th Brigade and the so-called Eastern Unified Command. Unfortunately, the Embassy declined to provide us with this information directly. We think it would be very important to have this information confirmed, especially since the "Eastern Unified Command" is not a unit with which we are familiar.
Apparently these units obtained 325 M60 machine guns from US Embassy warehouses in June of this year, apparently under the terms of the 506A(2) drawdown for Colombia for 1997. This and all such aid should be carefully scrutinized.
We also obtained a copy of the annex to the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the governments of the United States and Colombia in August 1997 which names the regions in which US aid can be used. They are the departments of Meta, Vichada, Vaupés, Guaviare, Caquetá, Amazonas, Guainía, Putumayo, Nariño, Cauca, Huila, and Tolima. This represents the lower half of the country and includes from the Pacific coast through the Andes mountains and both the Orinoco plains and Amazon jungle. While this designation is meant to ensure that US aid is used for counternarcotics operations, it does nothing to dispel the central fact that US security assistance is also, by definition, counterinsurgency aid.
There are four reasons why US security assistance is by definition counterinsurgency aid:
1. Apart from the Anti Narcotics Directorate of the Colombian National Police, there are no security forces units that are exclusively counternarcotic forces. Rather, the Colombian Army units are multi-mission forces: they perform many different functions, among which are counternarcotics operations.
2. In many parts of the country, especially within this area of operation, there is no meaningful way to separate the two. Coca cultivation and labs are located in remote areas of the country that are hard to reach by the security forces, or where there is little government presence. These are the same areas where the armed opposition has traditionally found safe haven. These same groups tax all business operations in areas they operate, and that includes coca cultivation and processing. These groups respond to military operations in territories they control, including aerial spraying operations, with firepower.
3. There is nothing exclusive to counternarcotics operations about the weapons and equipment transferred by the United States, a fact not lost on the Department of Defense. In other words, the material aid can just as easily be used in counterinsurgency operations. We attach a memo from the US Southern Command acknowledging this as well as the fact that they do not expect the equipment to be only used for counternarcotics operations.
4. The same can be said about training and exercises: there is nothing exclusive to counternarcotics about light infantry training. The skills imparted are as applicable to counterinsurgency as to counternarcotics operations. Again, the attached memo from the US Southern Command is quite explicit on this point.
This nuance is important to note because counterinsurgency operations are the usual backdrop to human rights violations in the rural areas of Colombia and also because the public does not yet know the full extent of US involvement in the war in Colombia. The area of operation not only has a heavy presence of armed opposition groups but also has in the past years been subjected to paramilitary atrocities. This is also important because of the danger that the US may be drawn further into a very complex war that is producing hundreds of civilian deaths, often in the most horrible circumstances.
And while a great deal has been made about the so-called narcoguerrilla, less attention has been devoted to the fact that the narcotrafficker is an equal opportunity corrupter. It is important to get away from simplistic labels that do not add value to the discussion of what is a very difficult and dangerous policy area.
Given such a vast area of operation for counternarcotics activities, end use monitoring and reporting as well as the tracking of units is important because US aid in the past has gone to units involved in gross human rights violations. Of the fourteen Colombian Army units specifically identified in our 1994 report, thirteen had received US aid, despite prior assurances to Congress by top Clinton Administration officials that this was not happening. I include for the record our list of US aid prepared by the Milgroup in Bogota.
While violations directly ascribed to Colombian Army units have declined, violations by paramilitary groups have skyrocketed. This is noteworthy because in case after case, Amnesty International has documented the close links between paramilitary groups and the Colombian Army.
A soldier or policeman who can get away with murdering people, or supporting those who do, cannot realistically be expected to respect the rule of law I any area, much less to turn down bribes. In other words, he is not someone the US can consider an ally in its struggle against illegal narcotics trafficking. A counternarcotic strategy has to be a human rights strategy if it is to succeed at all.
This reality has been recognized by Congress and the Administration and we believe this recognition, best represented by the Leahy Amendment, is a sound and solid consensus on which to proceed.
At the same time, one cannot single out the paramilitaries or the security forces for their killings. One has to recognize the arbitrary killings and abductions by the armed opposition groups as well. In our travels throughout Putumayo, we came across plenty of accounts about arbitrary killings by the FARC the urban militias. Regardless, one set of killings and abductions does not justify another set, whatever angle one looks at this from. And clearly, Colombia is caught in a downward spiral of killings with the civilian population bearing the brunt, and with the US government seemingly in the position of fueling the conflict further by insisting on more military equipment.
The single most important contribution of the US government to human rights in Colombia is to speak clearly, consistently, and forcefully about the importance of protecting human rights and to match these words with deeds. Furthermore, the protection of human rights should not be conditioned on the success of peace talks. Human rights protection for the civilian population in particular is needed now.
But words must be matched by deeds:
1. All aid to security forces units should rigorously comply with the terms of the Leahy Amendment. The US government must expand the aid prohibition as a matter of policy to any unit credibly suspected of having links with paramilitary organizations.
2. As part of compliance with the Leahy Amendment, resources should be provided so that all directives of the State Department instructional cable can be complied with. There are still many human rights organizations that would be happy to provide information about the human rights records of specific units or of uniformed personnel in specific areas.
3. The End Use Monitoring reports should be updated and published.
4. All military training, joint exercises, and other combined military operations should only take place with Colombian military units not implicated in human rights violations and which have no ties whatsoever with paramilitary groups.
5. No person implicated in human rights violations should receive any payment or protection from the US government, even if that person is a US intelligence asset. As required in the Leahy Amendment, the US government should be actively supporting the prosecution of any known human rights violators.
I look forward to your questions and, again, I commend you for holding this hearing.